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John Brown no model for Christian engagement

John Brown
Vintage engraving of Capture of John Brown (abolitionist) in the Engine house, 19th Century. John Brown (May 9, 1800 – December 2, 1859) was an American abolitionist. Brown advocated the use of armed insurrection to overthrow the institution of slavery in the United States. |

There was an odd essay in Christianity Today extolling John Brown as a model for evangelical engagement. Brown, of course, led the 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, for which he was hanged. A fierce abolitionist and self-styled Calvinist, he hoped by seizing armaments to help escaped slaves create their own self-governing refuge in the Appalachians.

According to the author, Brown was a “fervent believer who models a profoundly radical social ethic without ever wavering from his firm commitment to biblical authority.” The author enthusiastically declared: “I dream that John Brown’s soul might march again.” 

And the author explained: 

In our time, white evangelicals seem to be in dire need of good examples of people who were transformed by their faith to rise above pedestrian racism — because, not in spite of, their unshakable commitment to the authority of Scripture. Why not John Brown? Why not the most esteemed white man in Black history? “Wherever there is a right thing to be done,” Brown liked to say, “there is a ‘thus saith the Lord’ that it shall be done.” Surely that’s a spirit that should go marching on.

A National Review essay responded to Christianity Today by saying of Brown: 

The clarity of his moral politics may be appealing, but the radical autonomy of his hermeneutic is anarchy. He is no model for any Americans, evangelical or otherwise.

This author noted that Brown, unlike slaves, had voting rights and the ability to fight slavery peacefully, as did most abolitionists, and as Abraham Lincoln. Comparing Brown to the handful of anti-abortion extremists who have killed abortionists, this author concluded: 

There speaks the spirit of John Brown in the hermeneutics of autonomy and the politics of moral absolutism. Christ, have mercy upon us.

Have mercy indeed, because violent and radical political fanaticism exemplified by Brown that is ostensibly Christian is exactly what American evangelicals do not now or ever need.  

Brown’s insurrection and tactics can be critiqued on realist, moral and theological grounds. Christianity Today strangely never mentioned Brown’s 1856 Pottawatomie Massacre, in which he and his gang at night dragged 5 men from their homes in a pro-slavery Kansas settlement and hacked them to death as their families watched in horror. Brown was executing vengeance for a pro-slavery raid on anti-slavery Lawrence, Kansas. Although purportedly believing in the Bible, Brown disregarded the divine warning, “Vengeance is mine, I shall repay.” He also of course, in his violence at Pottawatomie and Harper’s Ferry, disdained St. Paul’s admonition to heed legitimate governmental authority.    

Brown believed he, through his own Bible reading, had divine authority to kill, kidnap and establish an alternative government. He was not subordinate to any church or wider community but instead assumed himself to be God’s unique agent. His small number of followers were largely his own sons, two of whom were killed at Harper’s Ferry, and other much younger men enthralled by his fierce and bloodthirsty charisma.

It’s notable that no slaves flocked to Brown during his brief occupation at Harper’s Ferry, presumably because they were not interested in joining a suicide mission. And famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, himself a former slave, sensibly declined an invite to support the insurrection.  Douglass supported helping slaves escape, but his larger hope was through activism and legislation to defeat slavery legally. A bloodbath that would mostly killed slaves was never what Douglass had in mind.

By all accounts, Brown was completely sincere in his convictions and fearless. Even his prosecutors admired his fortitude at his treason trial, where he testified by occasionally rising from his stretcher, having been wounded at Harper’s Ferry. “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood,” he fiercely pronounced. “I had … vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed, it might be done.”

Presuming to be God’s agent to achieve political righteousness through mass bloodshed is not a model for Christian public engagement, it should hardly need to be said. Fanaticism, certitude, sanctimony, self-righteousness and messianic impatience are never helpful companions to constructive politics or social reform, for Christians or anybody else. These qualities govern jihadists and terrorists, not responsible Christians or prudent citizens of any society. 

Our desires, even for our vision of the good, should never be inflexibly conflated with God’s. And we must never presume to be His direct agents in politics, especially without wider accountability. This wisdom was reflected in Lincoln’s famous war-time quote: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”

The Christianity Today homage to Brown noted that he firmly believed in the Bible, was genuinely devout, prayed and had orthodox Calvinist theology, as though these qualities by themselves guarantee political wisdom and virtuous choices. Since all men are not only fallen but also, even at their best, finite in knowledge and judgment, righteous intentions and strong faith never guarantee constructive political action. Resolute faith, ungoverned by wisdom, experience and humility, can instead fuel foolish and destructive extremism. Boldness never substitutes for good judgment.

Brown’s deadly and ego-driven version of Christian political zealotry freed no slaves. Wiser and more prudent men, like Lincoln and Douglass, whose own faith and theology were often less certain, led in ending slavery. Brown’s blood drenched version of God’s Kingdom helped unleash the Civil War, which killed 700,000 Americans, or about 7 million as a percentage of today’s population.

Perhaps Brown was somehow ultimately correct “that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with Blood.” Lincoln in his Second Inaugural surmised the war was divine judgment for the injustice of slavery. But Lincoln saw this judgement as falling on everyone, with the whole nation complicit in the tragedy. He noted: “The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses for it must needs be that offenses come but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’”

If the Civil War was divine judgment, then messianic fanatics like Brown were arguably agents for precipitating that judgment, rather than redemptively working to avoid it. Christians in politics should not assume the role of avenging angels wielding the bloody sword of certainty and righteousness. Nor should Christians seek to precipitate the Apocalypse.

The Christianity Today column mocked Julia Ward Howe as a squeamish “liberal” who replaced the marching song “John Brown’s Body” with a “Unitarian anthem” known as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Unitarian or not, Howe’s lyrics focus on Christ and His return instead of Brown and his supposed immortality, which is instructive for all Christians. Our politics will not commence The Kingdom, which only Christ will launch.

As noted above, the Christianity Today column concluded:

“Wherever there is a right thing to be done,” Brown liked to say, “there is a ‘thus saith the Lord’ that it shall be done.” Surely that’s a spirit that should go marching on.

Politics is never more potentially dangerous than when claiming to be based on the inflexible absolutism of “thus saith the Lord.” Instead, Christians should, amid our own sins and limitations, seek wisdom and knowledge for advancing approximate justice whenever possible through providentially patient and peaceful collaboration. John Brown only models what to avoid: violent and zealous self-assurance.


Originally published at Providence.

Mark Tooley became president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) in 2009. He joined IRD in 1994 to found its United Methodist committee (UMAction). He is also editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence.

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